Memories of Dominica (October 2017)

This week we reach the end of the first half of Remembrance and I shall be musing on memory. Do you remember? Do you remember your first day at Harris Westminster? Do you remember walking through the doors for the first time? Do you remember the first conversation you had with your best friend? Do you remember the moment at which you realised that your favourite subject was amazing? Memory is a funny thing – I find my failures stick in my mind much more than my successes: the lessons that went pear-shaped are the ones that return rather than the ones that went fine; the stupid things I’ve said much more likely to haunt me than the rather clever ones (even though I like to think there have been more than the latter). Maybe it’s because the most powerful memories are the turning points, the things that really changed you and so it’s when I’ve made a pig’s ear of something and vowed to do better, to be better that I’ve remembered: although it’s the disaster that haunts me in the middle of the night it’s the resulting promise that has made it stick. Memories can be annoying when they won’t get out of your head and leave you alone and they can be powerful when they motivate you to self-improvement. They can also be useful, and I hope that each of you is cultivating your academic memory: working hard to practice remembering so that you remember better, filling your memory with the Mechanics of your subjects so that the full power of your brains can be applied to the Purpose. This feat has been impressively demonstrated by a number of our Year 13s. Last year I inaugurated a group called the Full UMS club and invited anyone who was interested in getting 100% in their exams to come and listen to a series of talks by teachers on how to maximise your score in tests. Anyone who wants can join the full UMS club – if you haven’t done so yet please send me an email and I’ll add you to the list. The lectures are organised by the members: if you wish to find out how to nail your Geography test you should go up to Mr Rao and ask him if he’ll give a lecture for the club. Once he’s agreed (and I can recommend flapjack as a persuasive tool) you email me with a time and date and I shall send a message out to all members. Harder than becoming a member, though, is to become a fellow of the Club. For this you have to score full UMS in an exam – or close enough for the teachers marking it to be satisfied. You then receive a special badge and the right to graze your sheep in the William Blake Reading Room. This year the following students achieved that feat and can be identified by their snazzy badge and well-fed flock: Full UMS in one subject was scored by Lola, Ameena, Sarah, Andrea, Alessandro, Darica, Disha, Fatma, Sumayyah, Katie, Paulina, Zaid, Harry, Callum, Rio, and Aweys. With full UMS in two subjects were Sarah, Robyn, Nicolle, and Ananya. With three were Sophia and Ibrahim, and finally, amazingly, scoring a full set of full UMS – quite frankly we should give her an especially debonair hat and let her graze elephants – we have Hannah.

Remembrance is also a way of showing respect when something awful has happened. We will be exemplifying that in the Remembrance Service which will be held here in the Abbey on the evening of 14th November – you will all be here and your parents will also be invited. If you can’t come you need to speak to me personally beforehand (and don’t leave it until the afternoon of the 14th). It’s quite a wonderful moment as we remember those who have made sacrifices so that we can have the opportunities we do and we make a commitment to ourselves and to each other to do our bit to make the world a better place. Particularly we remember the dead of the first world war and Annie will be laying a wreath on the tomb of the unknown warrior. It’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.

We are fortunate to live in a time of relative peace and prosperity but this is not an advantage shared equally across the world as Aisha will tell us: Dominica is a small island in the Caribbean known as 'The Nature Island' but it has limited resources. It is part of the Commonwealth with ex-colonial historical ties to the United Kingdom and there are many Dominicans living in London, like my Mum. On 18th September it was hit by the eye of Hurricane Maria raging at category 5 and completely devastated. The island has undergone immense damage caused by 175 mph winds with an estimated 90% of homes without a roof, subsequent flooding, storm surge and landslides. There were fatalities and injuries. Communications, water supplies, power, hospital and medical services were lost. Property was severely damaged, roads and ports were blocked, security services broke down and crops and other island resources were destroyed for years to come. I have relations all over the island and I'm pleased to say after a week with little or no communication that they have survived but I can't begin to feel what they have been through. Imagine having the roof of your house ripped off, rain pouring in, no way of finding out what has happened elsewhere, not knowing if loved ones have survived or being able to contact your family overseas. Then being faced the next day with no electricity, water and food supplies running out, no security on the streets and roads blocked. As a testament to the indomitable spirit of the people there is a joke going around Dominicans that to have a roof is now 'unfashionable'. However, we are still in the rainy season and yet more hurricanes may arrive. Things are slowly improving but it will take years to rebuild Dominica. However, I am proud of my family and fellow Dominicans for the resilience and community togetherness they are showing in the crisis. If anyone is able to help with the relief effort please go to:

For the Dominicans this Autumn is a time they will always remember – a terrible memory and for many the end of a happy time but for some it will also be the beginning of something new: the rebuilding will be a fresh start and they will find hope among the devastation. The more help they get from outside the more likely that these terrible memories are beginnings as well as ends.

I’ve told you before – do you remember – that one of the recurring soundtracks of my household is that philosopher of the internet-age, Taylor Swift. She is not the only song-writing hero of my 21st century relatives, however, and her songs are frequently interspersed by those of a surprisingly poetic Scotch Egg, one of which starts like this:
"When I was six years old I broke my leg: I was running from my brother and his friends and tasted the sweet perfume of the mountain grass I rolled down. I was younger then, take me back to when I found my heart and broke it here; made friends and lost them through the years. And I've not seen the roaring fields in so long, I know I've grown, but I can't wait to go home. I'm on my way, driving at ninety down those country lanes, singing to "Tiny Dancer". And I miss the way you make me feel, and it's real. We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill."

It’s a song of memories – of moments of a life that have stuck in the poet’s mind and the central one is the sunset over the castle on the hill: a moment that has come to mean more to him than you’d think if the story was told in prose, but it isn’t and, in fact, none of our lives are. Our memories are places of poetry where our senses intertwine, where moments are stretched out and from which boredom is erased. That sunset over the castle on the hill, remembered once, has come to represent a golden age in which all was right with the world, in which Ed was still young enough to know the truth and I must parenthetically apologise here because still young enough to know the truth is someone else’s line: it’s from a song called Goin’ Back, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and it was used by my father as the title of a mix-tape he gave to my sister in the early nineties, containing Dusty Springfield’s version of the song, and for me it represents a family summer in which we were both in our late teens, exploring new freedoms and responsibilities, safe in the family home but looking hungrily out at the world beyond. Still young enough is a memory that carries much more weight than one three-minute pop-song could ever be expected to bear.

Memories are powerful and I’d like you to take a moment now to make one. The Abbey is a place filled with memories – filled, in fact, with memorials, with stone monuments to the dead but today I’d like to warm it with the memories of the living. Look around you, pick a spot, a cornice, a carving, a monument, a memorial and remember what you see and as you look think about your future and what you want from it. Our memories can spur us to do better, to be better; our memories can help us to achieve our goals; our memories can give us the energy for a fresh start; they can respect what we’ve been given by others and drive us to give meaning to those sacrifices and they can root us in a moment of safety from which we can go out and play our part in the world. Remember your spot in the Abbey and make a promise to yourself that you will do justice to your talents, that you will make the most of your opportunities, that when you look back on your life you’ll see something that the you that sits here now, the you that is still young enough to know the truth, would be proud of. The Abbey, like the castle on the hill, will stay here when you move on and your spot in the Abbey will hold that promise and remind you of it whenever you visit, whenever you hear Ed Sheeran sing and whenever you read of Dominica.